Working in Italy with the highly respected connoisseur of Florentine paintings and drawings, Bernard Berenson, immediately after Oxford (an ambition he had held since his high-school days at Winchester), provided the powerful springboard for Kenneth Clark’s astonishingly rapid career-path through the art world of the U.K. from the 20s to the 70s.
At an early age he headed the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, the National Gallery, and, during the war, was responsible for hiding the country’s great pictures in abandoned mines in the Welsh hills. Also during the war he ran the highly successful War Artists’ Advisory Committee which provided artists (assigned to the three Services) with work, producing many fine works of artistic reportage for the nation.
After the war, to everyone’s surprise (and his own since he didn’t own a TV set), he accepted the directorship of newly created Independent Television Authority which would provide the BBC with commercial competition, public service which reflected his Ruskinian values of bringing the enjoyment of art and other ‘serious topics’,along with ‘entertainment’, to the general public. It proved to be a great, and profitable, success.
He then went on to preseat great many very well received TV programs on art while writing, among many other books, his most highly regarded The Nude and Landscape Into Art.
But it was his phenomenally successful thirteen-part series Civilisation in the early seventies that made him known around the world (which subsequently earned him the nickname ‘Lord Clark of Civilisation’), a new version of which is currently being produced with Simon Schama and Cambridge University’s Mary Beard taking on Clark’s presentation role. Interestingly, its new title will be Civilisations, suggesting a broadening of the somewhat criticised narrower scope of Kenneth Clark’s.
James Stourbridge: Kenneth Clark, Life, Art and Civilisation, 2016, is a well-written biography, giving a fascinating well-researched look at a man who embodied the rare combination of scholar and ‘committee man’, whose ease in the corridors of power greatly benefitted the artists he so admired and often financially supported, sometimes in their difficult times.